Friday, July 25, 2003

What should I read tomorrow? Yikes. I enjoy reading, or I used to, and I think I'm getting better at not doing the dreaded singsong "poetry voice," but it's hard to figure out exactly what poems to read and how. If my book were out I would probably just confine myself to poems from that, but for a reading like this the sheer mass of material I have to choose from daunts me: three full-length manuscripts and a 40-page work in progress. For a venue like this one (which faithful readers know has presented Ithacans with the Berrigan Bros. and Gary & Nada among other fine avanty poets) it's tempting to try out some of my more experimental material, like the quadrants from Fourier Series (you can see a sample of that book here, just below the three Severance Songs, courtesy of Can We Have Our Ball Back?). But I'm tempted to choose some of the more stand-alone crowdpleasing poems from Selah and The Nature Theater of Oklahoma (the MS whose poems I've probably published the largest percentage of in magazines) because I'm a ham at heart and want to please the crowd. I only have 20 minutes or so, and I think I could only do the more conceptual poems justice if I read a considerable volume of them over a period of at least 30-40 minutes. Hurm.

I'll probably err on the side of the more conventionally lyrical, "voice-driven" poems. There goes my indie cred, if I ever had any. This makes me think for some reason of my Kant group's general attitude toward the Third Critique: aswim in French theory, they seem attracted mostly to his concept of the sublime (the struggle between imagination and reason) and dismiss the beautiful as wan and passive (the harmonious accord of imagination and understanding, or intellect as Arendt has it). But I'm still stuck on the beautiful, I can't help it.

Here are some things I wrote in my notebook yesterday in response to Arendt and Kant:
Arendt explores the gap between aesthetic judgment and moral reasoning in her lectures on Kant's political philosophy. Apparently judgments of taste are only to influence action—to turn practice into praxis—in the most indirect of ways by preventing the morally righteous man from being merely "an idealistic fool." I take this to mean a certain tempering (through the "cosmopolitanism" that Kant held was the highest good for human development) of the passions stirred by moral reasoning—a kind of imaginative empathy (though Arendt is careful to exclude empathy as some kind of necessary special ability for aesthetic judgments, which achieve their universality through imagining how others might respond to an object) that might mitigate the style of a moral action if not its substance. Of course this distinction opens a whole new can of worms.

The split, the homelessness that I sometimes feel as a poet/scholar could be expressed through Kant's distinction between genius and taste. [I hope it's obvious in what follows that I'm not claiming to be "a genius," which is something else; Kant defines his term this way: "Genius is the talent (natural gift) that gives the rule to art. Since the talent, as an inborn productive faculty of the artist, itself belongs to nature, this could also be expressed thus: Genius is the inborn predisposition of the mind (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art." A little further down: "the word 'genius' is derived from genius, in the sense of the particular spirit given to a person at birth, which protects and guides him, and from whose inspiration those original ideas stem" (all from § 46).] Genius is guided by spirit (Geist), "the animating principle in the mind" (§ 49), which cannot be taught; taste is educable, or rather is a process of education (each experience of the beautiful or sublime stretches the capacities of the faculties (understanding, reason, imagination). If I follow Kant's formula (which is Kant at his most Romantic) my evolving taste must set the limits for my "genius," but it seems to me that it's especially easy for a person of my temperament to pay too much attention to the strictures of taste. I don't want to hobble that "spirit," whatever it is—the one thing unique to me, unable to be acquired or cultivated by anyone else. Surely it's possible to honor and nurture one's own spirit without falling into the traps of egotism and solipsism? I don't claim any special status for myself—only a freedom which is the right of all, though few are permitted it and even fewer permit it to themselves.

Spirit: that which enables genius to find an expression for the ideas "by means of which the subjective state of mind brought about by them. . . can be communicated to others" (§ 49). Spirit finds the objective correlative.

"In a word, the aesthetic idea is a representation of the imagination, associated with a given concept, which is combined with such a manifold of partial representations in the free use of the imagination that no expression designating a determinate concept can be found for it, which therefore allows the addition to a concept of much that is unnameable, the feeling of which animates the cognitivie faculties and combines spirit with the mere letter of language" (§ 49).

Perhaps poetry has boxed itself into a corner: "geniuses" speaking only to each other. The Spirit which renders something communicable is demanded not of the writer but of the reader—taste is not enough to read the "difficult" poem. Poets speaking to poets. But there are some non-poet readers—either they are all poets manqué or, as I'd prefer, their taste has been more rigorously educated (and what is taste's freedom of play if not Negative Capability, that which refrains from seeking a concept?) than that of the otherwise highly literate people who love complex novels but shun poetry. Blaming the reader? Epater les bourgeois? Is that sufficient any more, if it ever was?

Tonight: more poetry books at the Bookery, unless they make me do real work again.

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